In February 2020, the transport of snow by helicopter to compensate for the absence of “white gold” in a Pyrenean resort caused a scandal, highlighting the fragility of the resorts and their very strong dependence on skiing. At the same time, the citizen translation of the summary for decision-makers from the latest work of the IPCC highlights the emphasis placed on the impacts of climate change in mountain areas, reaffirming in particular the vulnerability of these territories in terms of snow cover.
Ski resorts are first and foremost looking for solutions to compensate for the lack of snow (snow cannons, mainly, etc.), and for good reason: the economic weight of resorts in terms of local jobs but also on the scale of the tourist industry. (station equipment manufacturers, design office, etc.) is colossal.
But the “snow cannons” will not be enough to chase away a recurring debate on the future of resorts and the associated mountain economy. Moreover, the changes they are experiencing do not stop at climatic transformations. “All-ski” stays are now less popular, and tourists also want to take advantage of offers for well-being, rejuvenation or other fun activities.
The merger of the intermunicipalities as well as the consecration of their role in tourism, consequences of the Notre law, have also upset the territorial balance.
Sometimes drowned in intermunicipalities ranging from the plain to the mountains, the particular concerns of the municipalities can find themselves both diluted by more ordinary considerations of land planning (activity zones or residential urbanization for example), and isolated to assume their responsibilities in terms of management of ski lifts, safety in ski areas and their role as conductor of tourist facilities.
Skiing will not disappear everywhere
With climate change, snowfall uncertainties experienced by resorts are intensifying and the level of economic vulnerability is increasing.
Faced with such developments, French resorts respond mainly by improving techniques for grooming the ski area and in the production of artificial snow. In 2015, the artificial snow cover rate in French ski areas was 32%.
Having made other technological and organizational choices, Austrian resorts can on average potentially cover 66% of their ski area and this rate can rise to almost 100% in certain Italian regions. It is around 40% today in the Alps.
By 2050, artificial snow will thus be able to globally compensate for the lack of natural snow. This positive outlook should not, however, overshadow the diversity of situations (topography, climate), as well as the great disparities in situations with regard to the availability of water resources, energy costs and even more so in the financial capacities of the resorts and municipalities concerned. to ensure the investment and operation of this artificial snow equipment. Therefore, other ways of adaptation must be imagined.
A “four seasons” tourist offer
Faced with the uncertainties linked to the natural and artificial snow cover of the resorts, turning to other activities helps to improve their resilience. They are now rediscovering the challenge of diversifying the resorts’ tourist offer and expanding the offer to include products unrelated to skiing or even snow.
This is to forget, however, that diversification was initiated in the 1990s, in the largest resorts, in order to offer an “after-ski” offer to tourists. Subsequently, the attention paid to this strategy increased, due to the growing expectations of customers and the implementation of public policies intended to promote a “four-season” tourist offer. For the time being, these services nevertheless remain supplements to the ski offer, with no real substitution.
In practice, this trend leads to moving from a logic of resort to a logic of more global mountain tourist destination, favoring the discovery of the territory, in its environmental, agricultural and cultural dimensions.
This is the ambition of the Espaces Valléens policy, led by the Alps: these project territories, going beyond the resort scale, develop a sustainable tourism strategy, based on the enhancement of the environmental and cultural heritage, built (churches, fortifications, etc.) as unbuilt (gastronomic heritage, landscape), so as to specify the tourist offer offered by the territories and to get out of a generic form of tourism.
The definition of such a strategy opens the door to a more global (and systemic) vision of mountain territories and highlights the capacity of local actors to learn and build new models.
Living in the mountains
Beyond tourism developments, resorts will be called upon to deal with the urbanization of mountain areas, which are sometimes highly attractive for various reasons: service levels, search for quality of life, less contaminated areas. This trend could benefit resorts close to large cities, such as Grenoble, which is known to be hot and polluted in summer.
In this hypothesis, the nature of the tourist accommodation present on the site could play a strategic role, depending on whether or not it can be converted into accommodation dedicated to permanent populations. Similarly, territorial developments, marked by the phenomenon of intercommunality, call for reasoning on larger scales and therefore for identifying forms of development and complementarity articulating all territorial resources and sectors of activity (tourism, crafts, agriculture and industry), depending on the history of the place and its economy.
Some resorts, located in territories where tourism is the only economic sector, will probably pursue an economic trajectory centered on winter sports, but fewer of them will do so. Those who manage to maintain the ski offer could then benefit from the transfer of customers from resorts in which this is no longer possible.
Between the lines of this diagnosis, it is the end of the single model that is pointed out. It has proven itself for the creation and expansion of an internationally renowned winter sports sector in France in the 1960s, but has since given way to a diversity of resort trajectories and can no longer constitute a reference in the face of current challenges.
In this changing context where certainties are no longer required, the challenge in the short or medium term is to support the transition of stations. In practice, it is a question of co-constructing with the actors of the territories a new definition of the stations and their roles to preserve a living mountain.